There is no looking glass here and I don't know what I am like now. I remember watching myself brush my hair and how my eyes looked back at me. The girl I saw was myself yet not quite myself. Long ago when I was a child and very lonely I tried to kiss her. But the glass was between us—hard, cold and misted over with my breath. Now they have taken everything away. What am I doing in this place and who am I?
This passage, narrated by Antoinette in Part Three, reflects several significant themes regarding her captivity in Thornfield Hall. Delivered in the present tense, these lines suggest the immediacy of Antoinette's situation and place us within the attic alongside Rhys's heroine. While Antoniette is unable to follow the passage of time, she remains acutely perceptive about her immediate surroundings, maintaining a lucidity that often breaks the surface of her madness. For instance, she notices the absence of a mirror, as it would provide her with a reflection of herself and a reassurance of her existence. An important motif throughout the novel, mirrors underscore the important questions of identity that pull at Rhys's central characters. Annette, Antoinette's mother, constantly looked for her own reflection—a habit adopted by her daughter, and one that indicates their shared need to be visible in a world that neither accepts nor invites them. By putting Antoinette in a mirrorless prison, alone save for a taciturn guard, Rochester exacerbates her feeling of disconnection. He has already deprived her of her name, calling her Bertha and effectively erasing her existence as Antoinette. Without a name, she does not know what to call herself; without a face, she becomes a ghost. As a child, Antoinette tried to kiss her reflected image, uniting the two halves of her split cultural identity, but she came up against the hard, separating glass. Antoinette's lifelong desire to close this gap—to become a visible, accepted member of any community—informs this passage and accounts for her inability to grasp and master reality.
I hated the mountains and the hills, the rivers and the rain. I hated the sunsets of whatever colour, I hated its beauty and its magic and the secret I would never know. I hated its indifference and the cruelty which was part of its loveliness. Above all I hated her. For she belonged to the magic and the loveliness. She had left me thirsty and all my life would be thirst and longing for what I had lost before I found it.
Spoken by Rochester, these lines appear at the close of Part Two, at the point when he prepares to leave the Caribbean and decides to bring Antoinette with him. His sudden and largely unexplained decision to render his wife lifeless and mad—to "force the hatred out of her eyes"—makes Rhys's Rochester a more complex and psychologically interesting character than his Brontë prototype. Rochester's willingness to believe Daniel Cosway's sensational stories and his need to confirm his misgivings prompt him to reflect, on receipt of the first incriminating letter, that "I felt no surprise. It was as if I'd expected it, been waiting for it." Like Antoinette, Rochester suffers from paranoia, suspecting that everyone, including his father, Richard Mason, and his own young bride, are laughing at him. The nagging suspicion that he stands on the outside of a well-kept conspiracy drives Rochester to self-contempt, hatred, and an irrational need to regain control. Turning this anger on Antoinette, he seeks to assert his power by becoming her puppeteer, a godlike tyrant who can kill her with his words alone. Rochester symbolically enacts her death at the end of this section of the novel, covering her with a sheet "as if [he] covered a dead girl."
Rochester's hatred of the natural landscape stems from his inability to read it or commune with it. While his servants and his wife find an abundance of meaning in their surroundings, Rochester sees it as an alien, feeling bombarded by its beauty and excess. Rejecting its elaborate contours and intricate meanings, he speaks of the "mountains, and the hills, the river and the rain," refusing to color these nouns with adjectives and descriptions. He reverts to simple nouns, adopting a sparer language and holding the landscape's secret at a safe, controllable distance. His wife's beauty, like that of her home, threatens to bewitch and ensnare Rochester. This passage, more palpably than elsewhere, exposes the logic, however despicable, of his cruel need to gain dominance.
Our parrot was called Coco, a green parrot. He didn't talk very well, he could say Qui est la? Qui est la? And answer himself Che Coco, Che Coco. After Mr. Mason clipped his wings he grew very bad tempered. . . .
I opened my eyes, everybody was looking up and pointing at Coco on the glacis railings with his feathers alight. He made an effort to fly down but his clipped wings failed him and he fell screeching. He was all on fire.
These two passages, along with numerous other allusions to birds and captivity, act as premonitions and serve to draw parallels between a highly symbolic natural world and the characters who inhabit it. Eerie and grotesque, descriptions of dead, rotten, and dying animals litter the first and second parts of the novel. Annette's poisoned horse, left to rot and swarming with flies, provides the first in a series of images that prefigure Antoinette's tragic abandonment and violent death. Coco, Annette's beloved parrot and the only possession that she attempts to rescue from the fire, emerges as a key symbol of women's captivity within the novel. Unable to "talk very well," the parrot mirrors the inability of women to gain voice in a patriarchal society. When he does speak, the parrot uses a French patois that aligns it with a female world embodied by Christophine, Martinique, and natural magic. His repeated question, "Qui est là," translates to "Who is there?" and underscores the paranoia, persecution, and issues of identity that trouble both Antoinette and her mother. Responding to itself, "I am Coco," the parrot repeatedly asserts its own name and fixes it own identity, reciting a mantra that, like an incantation, works as protection. Mr. Mason's unexplained impulse to clip the bird's wings indicates the white, male, English need to control.
Describing the events of the Coulibri fire, Antoinette recalls Coco's gruesome death in vivid detail. She experiences, perhaps, an unconscious presentiment of her own final moments, falling from the burning battlements of Thornfield Hall. In the dream that precedes and inspires her death, Antoinette thinks back to Coco, imagining herself as a wild incarnation of the tropical bird: "The wind caught my hair and it streamed out like wings. It might bear me up, I thought, if I jumped to those hard stones." Just as the gathered servants point and stare at the flaming bird, generations of readers have imagined the ghoulish image of a Creole madwoman and watched her death with a voyeuristic complacency.
'He has no right to that name,' she said quickly. 'His real name, if he has one, is Daniel Boyd. He hates all white people, but he hates me the most. He tells lies about us and he is sure that you will believe him and not listen to the other side.'
'Is there another side?' I said.
'There is always the other side, always.'
When Rochester approaches his wife with Daniel Cosway's sensational reports, Antoinette attempts to plead her case, arguing that she and her family have been unfairly persecuted and unjustly defamed. She responds to Rochester's unflattering insinuations by debunking Daniel's dubious credibility and exposing his ulterior motivations. Urging her husband to weigh the evidence with objective fairness, Antoinette points to Daniel's half-caste status and illegitimate birth as cause for his venomous accusations. Claiming that her half-brother has "no right to that name," Antoinette raises the important issue of naming and identity—an issue that pervades her story and spells out her tragedy. As Antoinette seeks to define herself, to find her "real name," she discovers that she is, in a sense, nameless—a girl whose mother rejects her and whose peers deride her. In the convent, the young Antoinette was preoccupied with the appearance of her own name and sought to make herself visible when she stitched on a cloth, "Antoinette Mason, nee Cosway." Given by men, her father and stepfather, Antoinette's names signal patriarchy and a changing of hands. As she searches for her own "real name," Antoinette suffers the indignity of others' naming: she is called, in turn, "the white cockroach," "Bertha," and "Marionette."
Confronted with Rochester's accusations, Antoinette reminds him to consider "the other side," asking him to listen to her own story, though he refuses. She offers to tell Rochester the truth about her mother, but he clings obstinately to Daniel's exaggerated tales and to the belief that he has been intentionally deceived. When Antoinette assures her husband that there is always another side, she speaks to the very cause of Rhys's feminist and postcolonial rewriting. As a book that adopts the perspective of a marginalized and exoticized literary figure, Wide Sargasso Sea promotes an awareness of other versions.
How can one discover the truth, I thought, and that thought led me nowhere. No one would tell me the truth. Not my father nor Richard Mason, certainly not the girl I had married. I stood still, so sure I was being watched that I looked over my shoulder. Nothing but the trees and the green light under the trees. A track was just visible and I went on, glancing from side to side and sometimes quickly behind me. This was why I stubbed my foot on a stone and nearly fell. The stone I had tripped on was not a boulder but part of a paved road. There had been a paved road through this forest. The track led to a large clear space. Here were the ruins of a stone house and round the ruins rose trees that had grown to an incredible height. At the back of the ruins a wild orange tree covered with fruit, the leaves a dark green. A beautiful place.
Almost immediately upon his arrival at Granbois, Rochester begins to question his hastily conceived and financially motivated marriage to Antoinette. Feeling painfully alone and shamefully duped, the young man follows a path from the dilapidated house into the woods, encountering an abandoned old house and losing himself in the overgrowth. Bathed in an eerie green light, the forest surrounds him but withholds its secret. Rochester comes no closer to discovering "the truth," to understanding his wife, or to finding his place on the island. Suffering from paranoia—a feeling that he shares with Antoinette—Rochester senses he is being watched, and the forest becomes a metaphor for his psychological wanderings. Invested with symbols and meanings, the hushed scene projects Rochester's inner world and mysteriously replicates Antoinette's recurring forest nightmare. In both her unconscious mind and his conscious act, a feeling of inevitability and fated doom colors the landscape and pulls them onward. In Rochester's case, the ruins of a stone house prefigure the burned remains of Thornfield Hall, as he unwittingly gazes upon a tragic fate that he himself will engineer. Rhys is thus even-handed in exposing the psychological sufferings of both characters. Rather than focusing primarily on Antoinette's victimhood, Rhys shows the parallel fears and struggles both Antoinette and Rochester face.
'Dominica' is a Leeward Island of the Caribbean, not Windward.
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